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NEW-CUE, Inc. is a non-profit, environmental education organization founded primarily to assist writers and educators who are dedicated to enhancing the public's awareness of environmental issues.
Shelby Lee Adams
Interview for The Aroostook Review
by Jenna J. Beaulieu
Shelby Lee Adams is a photographer from Hazard, Kentucky who currently works out of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I was drawn to Adams while researching possible subjects for a distance interview (specifically, Appalachian artists). Upon finding some of Adams’ photographs, I was captured by the soul and feeling found in his subjects’ eyes and expressions. I tried to contact him in a rather round-about way, and one evening returned home to hear his voice on my answering machine. I was primarily interested in how he worked with people, and how his subjects were as necessary to his method and process as his own ideas and equipment.
Shelby Lee Adams is featured in the DVD documentary “The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia” and has published (at least) three books:
Appalachian Lives (University Press of Mississippi, 2003); Appalachian Legacy: Photographs (University Press of Mississippi, 1998); Appalachian Portraits: Author and Artists series (with Lee Smith, University Press of Mississippi, 1993).
JJB: I’d like readers to know how you came to be a photographer and about your childhood, so could you tell me a little bit about growing up and how you became interested in photography?
SLA : I’ve often published this: my grandmother, when I was 10 to 13, was going blind from an eye disease that slowly disabled the optic nerve in her eyes and she went totally blind when I was very young. I was an artist as a child, wanted to be an artist, was encouraged by both grandmother and mother to draw and paint. In high school, I had a very good art teacher that encouraged me with my painting and drawing. And so I graduated from high school, winning the Art Award (there wasn’t a lot of competition). I studied different artists, different periods, mostly landscape, and some portrait work. I wanted to go to art school. My father thought I should be a professional person and sent me to a couple universities; after two semesters in two different schools, I ended up in Cleveland Institute of Art, when I was 19. My first semester of my second year of art school, I took my first photo class and by mid-term I declared my photo major and decided, very passionately, that photo was my life.
JJB: Who would you consider your greatest influence?
SLA : Well, the tragedy of my grandmother’s blindness made me very much aware of the visual world. I valued my grandmother looking under a spotlight, seeing my drawings and paintings, and I did them for her, thinking if I could become a good artist, I could make her well. We’re looking at an 11-12 year old boy. I had those kinds of really profound thoughts about art, that they could heal people and help people. And that came from my family, from my background, and so I’ve always had that kind of a passion, I think that started with her illness.
JJB: You said you were hoping that your art would heal your grandmother when you were a child. Has that transferred to your adult life? Do you feel like your photography can heal someone in some way, shape, or form…or move them?
SLA : I think now (as someone who has being photographing for 33 years) that art is a great metaphor. I think art can transform people, it can inspire them, and give them strength and inner peace. It can also therapeutically help people deal with trauma and issues. There are a lot of ways that art and photography can benefit and help people. I won’t say photographs are healing for people, but in some cases, I know for a fact, they can be, certainly in developing self-esteem, working with people, photographing over long periods of time, I think one’s self-esteem can benefit from a photo project. I certainly feel my work has helped people that way.
JJB: Do you feel like an outsider or you do you feel at home when you return to Appalachia?
SLA: I’ve lived in Massachusetts since 1980. I feel like an outsider here, not in Kentucky, not at all. It’s pretty seamless; when I say “seamless,” I mean this: it’s conversations when I go visit someone, you just pick up where you left off before. It’s an ongoing cycle, an ongoing relationship. Each year I try and visit new people, make new contacts, I do that every year, every summer or fall, but I always feel that revisiting is the richest. Some families I’ve photographed since the mid-70s. Now I may revisit them and not photograph, just because it’s a human relationship, but still those relationships introduce me to new families or new cousins or new neighbors. All my work is done by word of mouth, by introductions from one family to another, and it’s important to understand, especially for photo students, that you should always give your subjects pictures, before you ask to do something else. As a rule, since I was a student from Cleveland Art Institute, I’ve always taken a box of two to three hundred photographs back each trip to give and disburse to my subjects, and I won’t photograph someone unless I’ve given them their pictures from the shoot 6 months or a year before. It’s very simple, but it means a lot to people and it opens doors for you. In exchange for giving pictures, I ask people for introductions to new families, maybe their grandmother, maybe their neighbors, someone they know that they think I might be interested in. Now my subjects have three of my books and know what I’m interested in and the kinds of people I’m interested in and part of the visit involves learning about new people they’ve meat and who I might want to be introduced to so I can photograph them. My subjects do research for me, in a manner of speaking.
JJB: So they’re not just your subjects, to you they’re your friends or acquaintances.
SLA : Oh, they’re friends. It’s a long-term relationship, it’s an ongoing thing.
JJB: What would you say are some of the main identifying characteristics of the Appalachian people? Perseverance? Strength? Friendship? What would you say the Appalachian people are like?
SLA : There are a lot of stereotypes and a lot of misunderstandings. One of the strong characteristics is that they are strong individualists. That doesn’t mean they’re backwards and don’t want to deal with people; they just prefer to do things their way or find their way to deal with things. Whether it’s dealing with computers or recycling, Appalachians are individualists and have to find their own way and their own timing and their own speed and their own way of doing things. One of my metaphors that I like to talk about is religion. In my first 10-15 years, I wasn’t interested in mountain religions; now I often go to church just to experience the different religious groups. We might have 50 different religions in my home county and they’re always changing. Religion is like a way of being creative. It’s very serious- it can be very religious in the traditional manner, but people often break apart as groups (because they’re strong individuals). They disagree on the doctrines of the church, and yet they’ll reform a new religion, a new group, sometimes two or three times a year. When I come back a year later, it’s a whole other religion, in the same building, with half the same group. People change, and the groups change. It’s a passionate way of communicating and expressing yourself in Kentucky, and so I’ve learned a lot from people there by how they experience and express themselves in church, in a religious way. It’s not like the Methodists or the Catholics, which go by a strict orthodox code or rule; these people are not frozen in a certain doctrine, they’re evolving all the time.
JJB: It’s a way of expressing themselves.
SLA : Yes, and then other traditional things: music is very much a part of the culture. People write songs, they sing in church, their music is very individualized, there’s a lot of singing, a lot of ballads, a lot of instrumental work, almost someone in every family plays at least one instrument, if not two or three. Gardening is something that people love there, they can garden there for 6 months a year, maybe a little longer.
JJB: So, they’re very creative and passionate.
SLA : They’re very passionate people, but not in an overt way. It’s not how they dress or wear their hair.
JJB: It’s not melodramatic.
SLA: Another stereotype [about Appalachians} is that they’re not open to outsiders. As a teacher, I’ve taken people there from Germany, from Copenhagen, from British Columbia, L.A., New York. I’ve had students go with me to Appalachia from all over, and I find them not at all closed. They’re very open to learning from other people and it’s a stereotype that they’re not open to outsiders. I find it just the opposite. Of course, I’m the introduction and I know people. So, I introduce them But I find that my subjects, when they start talking to my photo assistant or whomever I’m bringing around, are incredibly curious about learning about the world, learning from other people. They’re very open and very curious to others.
JJB: And, they’re very connected with the land on some deep spiritual level. One of things I’ve learned is that obviously the Southern Appalachian mountains are beautiful and they’ve seen a lot of damage and destruction to their land (with strip mining and dam-flooding for energy resources). That’s often affected who they are a people. How has passion for the land affected you? Your photography, mostly, from what I’ve seen, captures the people. Are you still in love with the land of Appalachia?
SLA : Well, of course, to get to places, to visit one farm or another, you have to drive. I drive a couple hours everyday getting from farm, or one holler, we call ‘em hollers in Kentucky, from one holler to another, so the landscape is something you spend a lot of time enjoying, seeing, driving around. The mountain people love the landscape. Most recently, in the last three to four years, they have witnessed the strip mining and deep underground mining of their mountains. Clear-cutting has also greatly reduced the amount of trees. Both are terrible to the environment of the mountains themselves. Mountains disappear now. I never thought that was possible. So this new thing that’s going on with the environment, mining and the war - it’s brand-new to Appalachia, but it is definitely hitting and changing the landscape. I’m an environmental portrait photographer and I’m trying to capture that in people’s faces.
JJB: [In an earlier conversation,] you stated you were not a traditional documentary photographer, and started explaining to me your process for photography. Could you encapsulate that idea again for the purpose of this interview?
SLA : I’m generally viewed or written about as a documentary photographer. However, a documentary photographer is someone who goes into a situation, goes into a culture and environment and they photograph coal mining or photograph whatever it is that they are there to photograph. They’re not really participating. They can be very sensitive and very compassionate people, but they’re there to do a story, whether it’s on coal mining, whether it’s on poverty, whether it’s on how to make hook rugs or some craft in Appalachia. That’s objective documentary photography. What my work has evolved into is what I call…I’ve read this and there’s actually a term called “participant observer.” I’m a participant observer, I participate in people’s lives, and yet I am observing and documenting that life. It’s not just a straight documentation, and it’s further complicated, because I consider myself to be trained as an artist, so my own visual style and what I’m interested in is subjective. It’s also autobiographical, because I’m studying my own childhood, finding my way of expressing myself from my childhood memories, and also having the knowledge with an MFA degree in Art and Photography (influences through the art world and the history of art) - that’s all in my head, too. It’s my particular view of Appalachia; it’s not an objective overview of Appalachia. We’re all trying to define all these issues around documentary. There’s now terms like docudramas, which is recreation of documentary themes or ideas. In film, they do docudramas now, which recreates a certain thing and it looks exactly like what went on in WWII and so a lot of artists and photographers do docudrama as part of their way of working. I’m not doing that; I’m not staging or stylizing. A lot of times I am inspired by a childhood memory (because I grew up there on my two grandfather’s farms) If it’s a prayer meeting that I remember and it comes into my head here in the winter time in Massachusetts, I’ll go back and talk to my friends and say “Remember when we used to do the river baptisms or these kind of prayer meetings?” “I’d like to photograph that.” and the people say “Well, we haven’t done that in a while,” but they’ll have a church service and they’ll allow me to photograph it. I won’t really say that’s a docudrama. It is a re-creation, but it’s also authentic to what the people do and have always done throughout their lives. In other words, I sometimes ask my subjects to act out or let me photograph one of their rituals. It could be two men kneeling in front of their mother’s bed and praying for her (referencing “The Brothers’ Prayer” photograph). It is very common, but not too many people photograph it. That’s what I’m calling a ritual. A home funeral is something people do; it’s not an economic issue. Rather, people want the deceased brought into the home so that they can stay up and have a wake all night. It’s more personal than just being in a church funeral home. I’m very much aware of the Appalachian rituals and because I’m an insider, it comes from my childhood memory. Then I go ask my subjects about it and say “I think this is something that’s not done everywhere, that’s not done in other parts of the world, but we do it here, can we photograph it?” It becomes collaboration, because I get my subjects involved. So I think of my work as collaborative or could be called “participant observation.” They’re participating, I’m participating, we have a discussion and then we make Polaroids. We look at Polaroids together, and then we work on a shoot. A photo shoot for me can last 2-3 hours and make 10 Polaroids before we even shoot film. My subjects are very much involved with making a picture, and they see the Polaroids as part of the process. That separates my work from straight documentary. Using Polaroid materials is a big part of that. I’ve been doing it since 1974.
To tell you a bit more about that: I had gone through undergraduate school from 71-74 with a 35 mm and was working pretty traditionally. Then I had a critique from a guest speaker who said that I should use a view camera. He thought that I photograph like someone using a view camera. It wasn’t for technical reasons. My school had a view camera and they offered to let me use it during spring break. What I discovered during that one week (working with a view camera) is that my subjects, when they saw the Polaroids, were really excited. They made better pictures with me because they were really comfortable with it. At this time, they were coming out of an age and an era when Appalachia had been photographed a lot during the war on poverty. Previous photographers hadn’t sent pictures when they said they would and also, a lot of the stuff was about political poverty, which the people resented. The photographers worked with a 35 mm and no one saw the pictures. When I started working with a view camera (as a local) and people saw 4x5 Polaroid, it elicited them to get excited about photography in a way they hadn’t before. That’s why I became a view camera photographer. It’s not because of technical expertise; it was for my subject’s response to that camera.
JJB: Do you feel that, as you are capturing the face of your subject or one of their common rituals, you’re capturing a picture of Appalachia? What inspires you to capture a specific image? Are you ever spontaneously inspired by something that they’re doing?
SLA : As life evolves, as you grow and you live your own life, you’re interested in different things and you’re interested in other’s various life experiences. Appalachia’s always drawn me back home, but certainly the people I’m attracted to are always connected to how I’m living my own life. I’m always interested in a diversity of different things, because we all change. I’ve always been interested in having my subject confront the viewer; it’s very important to be aware of the viewer (meaning you as the audience). In art school, I learned it was a triangular relationship. You’re the photographer, you’re photographing your subjects, but then you’re both reflecting back (when it’s on a wall or in a book) the image to the viewer. I’ve always wanted to make intimate pictures that communicated my subjects in the most intimate way, but sometimes they’re hard pictures and they’re more confrontational, for some of us have never dealt with or seen some of other people’s life experiences.
I feel as an educator that it’s our job and our responsibility to confront ourselves, meaning you and the viewer, with other people’s humanity, but I don’t want to do that in a sentimentalized, romanticized way. I have to do it in my way, and it might be a little harder than some people might like.
JJB: Is there any controversy surrounding your work?
SLA : Well, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I photograph people who are in pain, and I don’t want to make that romantic and ideal when they’re suffering. I photograph them looking at the camera in a very straightforward way and present their humanity to you in as straightforward a way as possible. So it’s intentional on my part, but it’s also intentional on my subjects’ part, because they’re seeing their selves as Polaroids. You know, before we go to film. Some of the subject matter that I photograph may be difficult for some people, and I get criticized for that, but I photograph the world that’s open to me. I want to share that and educate you, which to my mind, is, if we don’t explore the dark side of our own selves and our own culture, then we’re not growing.
JJB: It’s a learning process.
SLA : Well, yeah. That’s the whole point: for all of us.
JJB: Well, for both you and your subject and then, consequently, your audience.
SLA : Hopefully.
SLA : From my subject’s point of view, people who have had difficult times and see themselves in a book, they feel affirmed. I think it’s very important that your subjects see what you’re doing all the time.
JJB: It’s a matter of honesty.
SLA : I grew up in the country, so everybody knows about what you’re doing, and everybody knows you personally, so you have to be straight, be the same with everyone. I mean, because I’m a country person, I know that, so I can’t be two different people in the community.
JJB: Well, because they would see that and probably lose respect for your work, if you’re trying to hide…
SLA : …the criticism [concerning controversial subjects]. When criticism comes up, I go “Well, there’s a nice review and here’s a bad one.”
JJB: You take it as it comes.
SLA : My work has been sometimes controversial, but I don’t hide that from my subjects. I think that’d be the kiss of death.
JJB: I am all out of questions! Do you have any concluding remarks?
SLA : People who see my pictures have to know that these are pictures done with people working with you, and I call that “as collaborative workers.” My work is done through dialogue and then it’s set up. That’s really what I’d like to stress.
JJB: I do think it’s important that you’ve identified yourself as a collaborative worker and a participant observer. It is how you find your way in to your art.
Speaking with Shelby Lee Adams was an exciting experience for me. We spoke of various subjects of my interest, including the Appalachian people, the art of photography, and the psychological aspects of art. He is currently working on an online article titled “All of Us,” which clearly defines the methods, ideas, and philosophies surrounding his art. I have had the privilege of reading this article and wholeheartedly recommend it to all readers. If you would like more information on Shelby Lee Adams and his work, you may access his blog at http://shelby-lee-adams.blogspot.com/ (also, keep a look-out for the upcoming arrival of “All of Us” as it will be posted here).